A fabulously intriguing new work, by playwright Kim Ho, is about to make its debut at Theatre Works later this month. The Great Australian Play is set in Australia circa 1930, during the time of the Great Depression, when many were desperate to believe in myths and legends. The myth that had particularly gripped the imagination of many, was the promise of Lasseter’s reef – purported by the charming Lasseter to be a fabulously rich gold deposit in a remote and desolate corner of central Australia. Ho uses the metaphor of the reef, and its non existence, to make a potent statement about our colonial history, as well as his own colonial heritage.
“As soon as I heard the tale of Lasseter and the expedition to find his “reef of gold”, it felt like I’d known the story my whole life,” says Ho. “It really got under my skin – something about it felt like it revealed something about colonial Australian culture, but something just out of reach. That feeling of this elusive problem, an undiagnosed sickness almost, was my impetus for wanting to write about the Lasseter legend.”
Ho’s previous work, Mirror’s Edge, ( winner of Patrick White Playwright’s Award at Sydney Theatre Company) looks at Chinese tourists unexpectedly arriving at Lake Tyrrell in northwest Victoria. “That was my way of negotiating my Chinese heritage and looking at what it means to be Asian, in a predominantly White country, living on stolen Indigenous land,” he says. “Tackling the Lasseter story, this grotesque pioneer adventure, is my way of looking at the White side of my family, and the colonial history that’s part of my story and identity as a Eurasian Australian.”
In fact, almost as soon as Ho started researching, a connection was made. Ho discovered that his great grandfather was actually close friends with the leader of the Lasseter expedition, Fred Blakeley. “He encouraged Blakeley to write his memoir on his typewriter – and that original manuscript became a family heirloom,” he says “I was able to get a photocopy from my mum’s cousin and use that as one of the foundational texts for the play. I got that same uncanny feeling as when I stumbled upon the Lasseter story. It was like unseen forces were guiding me to write this play!”
For Ho, the work is about emptiness, and heralds the much-lauded and seldom-read writer Patrick White as having this great description of coming back to Australia after years abroad: “In all directions stretched the Great Australian Emptiness, in which the mind is the least of possessions, in which the rich man is the important man… It was the exaltation of the “average” that made me panic most.”
“I think this quote cuts to the heart of what I’m trying to say with The Great Australian Play,” says HO. ” Lasseter and his team found nothing in the Outback, because their gold – whatever that means metaphorically – doesn’t exist. They were searching for something that isn’t there.”
Ho acknowledges that, of course, Australia isn’t “empty” and has never been, despite the myth of Terra Nullius and images of vast empty landscapes pervading the colonial Australian imaginary. It’s that attitude, he says, of Man in conflict with Nature, of the Pioneer taming the Wilderness, of the Easy Grab, of the Lucky Country, of She’ll Be Right, of If You Have A Go You Get A Go – that’s what’s empty. The Great Australian Play is a fun romp through the emptiness of colonial Australian culture.
The play started life as the major work for Ho’s Masters of Writing for Performance at the VCA. “I started that course so eager to make “important” work, conventionally structured narratives that really Said Something About Our Contemporary Moment,” he says. “Essentially, I wanted to write the next great Australian play. The Lasseter story felt like a great historical event on which to base it.”
Ho soon found himself struggling, badly. “The Lasseter expedition, being a trek into the Outback, is a very cinematic story – it lends itself to screen, not to theatre,” he says. “But when I started writing a screenplay, the conventions of realism demanded that all the explorers be played by white men – I’d be reinforcing the colonial perspective of the story through my telling of it. The more I read about the expedition, the stupider it seemed. Lasseter was clearly making the whole thing up. It was utter folly to think his “reef” could solve Australia’s financial woes during the Great Depression.”
It became clear to Ho that his quest to write a Great Australian Play mirrored the explorers’ quest to find Lasseter’s reef. “In a way, I was frantically trying to excavate my “creative gold” from colonial Australian history.”
“With the encouragement of my mentors at the VCA, I decided, “Fuck it, I’m going to blow this thing open.” The play became about a bunch of screenwriters trying to adapt the Lasseter legend into a movie. It became a story about stories, about what it means to tell them as non-Indigenous Australians, about how the myths we tell ourselves define who we are for better or worse (mostly worse).”
Ho explains that a lot of this process was him writing from his subconscious – images and vignettes which came to him but which he couldn’t explain. “I gave weight to weird, surreal moments that felt only tangentially or thematically related to the Lasseter legend. I specifically did things that I normally hate in theatre: vignettes, long monologues, writers writing about writers. The outcome is something like if David Lynch directed Red Dog. We’re pitching it as Heart of Darkness meets Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.”
As a playwright, Ho is really interested in moments of uncanny encounter and acknowledges normally writing earnest, heartfelt comedy drama, so this work marks an abrupt left turn into satire and surrealism. But that idea of fleeting, uncanny encounters between people still pervades his work.
He’s also interested in myths and the process of stories becoming mythologised, and how tied to colonisation that process is. “Joseph Campbell’s work on pan-cultural mythologies, as well as anthropology’s influence theatre criticism both have deep colonial underpinnings,” he says. “This makes me think that the whole contemporary Western paradigm of storytelling is such a dangerous apparatus. I want to see what happens when you destroy those conventions. I guess I’m trying to decolonise the way I tell stories.”
As a strong proponent of Australian work for Australian stage, Ho believes we still, collectively, have an inferiority-complex-cum-obsession with British and American work. “Even the work by POC coming out of those places – I wouldn’t be surprised if writers like Brandon Jacobs Jenkins and Young Jean Lee get programmed more frequently on our mainstages than our writers of colour,” he says.
But he doesn’t believe this has that much to do with Australia’s cultural cringe. Australian work does really well here. MTC’s tentpoles, for example, are productions like Storm Boy and Jasper Jones, and they’re programming more and more work like Golden Shield and Torch the Place and Astroman, which Ho thinks is a promising sign.
Ho thinks in decolonising our stages, it’s about looking to other performance lineages – what are the classics from African writers? Writers from all over Asia and South America? HO advocates putting on work by First Nations people from around the globe and not worry too much about whether it says something about contemporary Australia – because any story, from anywhere around the globe, will be relevant to us in some way. And of course, there’s potential in centring the voices of marginalised Australian writers to get a broader understanding of who we are.
I had also asked Ho to tell me a little about his YouTube life, in particular his piece that went viral gaining praise from Ellen DeGeneres and Stephen Fry: “Ha! It feels like a long time ago. I was in Year 12 when all that was going on. It was at a pivotal time in my life when I was deciding what the hell I was going to do after school. Having that really positive response from The Language of Love gave me the assurance that I could try it as a writer. And I’ve been doing it ever since.”
Ho believes he owes his career to that film’s reception, “…and not so much Stephen Fry and Ellen, which is obviously cool, but more so the responses of LGBTQI+ folks online who responded so well. It was like, stories can be a force for positive change, and I want in on that.”
The Great Australian Play is a psychedelic romp through the myths of our glorious nation’s past, present, and imagined future. This dazzling, kaleidoscopic work is the epic Australia’s been waiting for!
And, adds Ho, whatever you think this play is, it’s not that.
February 19 – 29